Breaking In a Dell Desktop
February 1, 2005 8:14 AM   Subscribe

Preparing-a-Dell-to-enter-polite-society filter. My sister, who lives out of state, ordered a Dell desktop and is having it delivered here. My experience with similar machines is not entirely positive. Before she takes it to its new home this weekend, are there any changes we should make to the machine and/or any steps we can take to avoid future problems? [MI]

She'll be using the machine mostly for email, a bit of mp3 downloading and cd burning , some web surfing, etc. No video watching or gaming. So it doesn't have to run like a thoroughbred, but reliability is important.

I'm wary because of some of the criticisms of Dell I've heard lately, but also because my mother has an HP and I'm guessing the Dell will have certain things in common with it: cramped, not-made-for-upgrades case; difficult-to-identify or rebadged motherboard, specs for which will be difficult to find; pre-installed manufacturer utilities or games that may or may not be desirable; Windows installed but without an actual Windows CD, just (if we're lucky) a manufacturer's "system restore" disc or some such; lack of useful documentation; and possibly some ad-ware and spyware as well. If I'm wrong about any of this, please let me know.

Are there any programs we should go ahead and remove from the Dell? Which anti-spyware and anti viral utilities should we install? What should we leave alone in order to keep the warranty intact? I was considering taking digital photos of the innards, especially the motherboard, and also the connections on the rear, etc. and maybe trying to download some manuals and so forth so that I can provide long distance tech support after the warranty expires. Are there any other steps along these lines that I can take right now? Uh, and what's this I hear about Dell's tech support sucking?

Finally, I'm planning to bestow upon my sister a CD or two full of software. At the moment, she has little or nothing. There's so much out there; I'm having difficulty narrowing it down. What should absolutely make the cut?

Any advice, anecdotes, dos, or don'ts would be greatly appreciated.
posted by Clay201 to Computers & Internet (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
As a former owner of a Dell, here is what I would suggest you do.

1) Format the harddrive
2) Install Windows XP Pro
3) Install SP2 and patches
4) Install an Antivirus
5) Install Microsoft's AntiSpyware (it's better than Ad Aware for a beginner)
6) Set up her internet connection
7) Set up IE to be as secure as possible, make sure the IE popup blocker is on
8) Install Shockwave, Flash, Quicktime, BBC's Real Player
9) Install Irfanview (for quick image viewing)
10) Install MP3 player, maybe iTunes
11) Install Photo organiser, maybe Picassa
12) Set her homepage to google or something
13) Setup remote desktop so that she can ask you for remote assitance when needed
14) If she doesn't use a hardware firewall in the form of a router, install a firewall with access to all the software that need it for legit use
15) Write down the system tag of the system and check Dell's site for any driver or BIOS updates
posted by riffola at 8:20 AM on February 1, 2005

Her PC might come with a full Windows XP Home CD, if that's the case, just install XP Home. Also I forgot to mention Firefox, install it and have her use that instead of IE. Reinstalling the OS usually doesn't void the warranty.
posted by riffola at 8:23 AM on February 1, 2005

Install and encourage her to use Firefox.
posted by mhaw at 8:23 AM on February 1, 2005

Delete the Internet Explorer shortcuts on the desktop; replace them with Firefox icons. That will encourage use of Firefox and stop most spyware problems at their source (IE).
posted by AlexReynolds at 8:32 AM on February 1, 2005

When I got my Dell Laptop, I actually got a real Windows XP cd, not a "system restore" disk. So bonus points for that. You should be able to install Windows XP fresh from that and then use the supplied Drivers disk to install the drivers you need. It should step you through the order in which you need to install them.

You're also right about the motherboards -- Dell's motherboards are custom-made deals and are mostly un-ATX compatible, even down to the power connector.
posted by zsazsa at 8:41 AM on February 1, 2005

Whatever you do, don't use any sort of system restore disks that come with the unit. Most major manufacturers pre-load their machines with spyware and other junk software that is not only useless, but causes crashes and slowdowns (I still, even today, haven't figured out *why* they would want to do this, it only causes more support calls!)

It is easier to format and install with a non-Dell disk than to manually remove the spyware (which is often embedded into windows and doesn't offer any form of uninstall).

Get ahold of all the drivers you need *first*. Most brand-name systems use OEM junk which is almost impossible to find drivers for outside the manufacturer (usually out of business) or the original company (In your case, Dell). Otherwise you'll be in for lots of chipset-based guinea-pig driver testing.
posted by shepd at 8:44 AM on February 1, 2005

I have to say that every Dell I've owned has been quite nice to work with; they all have easily-available drivers and specs on Dell's support site, the cases are easy to work with, and there's not a tremendous ton of crap preloaded on them. I second the idea of making sure that you customize it for what she'll be doing with it -- adding a good, easy-to-use MP3 player (preferably something with which you're familiar, since you'll inevitably be called to help!), adding an easy-to-use CD burning app, etc. But beyond that, I'd suspect that you'll find the Dell pretty pleasant.
posted by delfuego at 9:18 AM on February 1, 2005

If she's a true neophyte who doesn't understand why Firefox is better than IE, remove the IE icons (as mentioned above) but rename Firefox "Internet" or something like that. Many people think the WWW lives inside the IE icon and can't understand what "Firefox" means.

Definitely be sure to install remote desktop so you can take care of small issues as they arise rather than trying to walk her through them.
posted by arco at 9:20 AM on February 1, 2005

My Dell Inspiron 8500 laptop came with a system restore disk, it's basically just as good as a standard install cd; very minor changes, but usable. I'd definitely recommend reformatting and reinstalling, as there IS a bunch of stuff preloaded that you don't need, like trial versions of this and that and the other, plus various remote access settings so tech support monkeys can fiddle with your computer and it's registry from afar. :(

You can save yourself some time by going to and pre-downloading the drivers you'll need. If you don't, you're going to have to use the dell drivers/software cd to install drivers for your network card or modem, and then you'll have to update them again after you have network connectivity.

It probably doesn't need to be said, but don't connect the machine to the internet AT ALL until you at least have SP2 installed, and then get a firewall ASAP. You should probably do the firewall thing before you connect, but I don't, and I've been okay so far.

And what everyone else said about Firefox, please.
posted by cactus at 9:48 AM on February 1, 2005

Set her up with a power user account and an admin account. Make sure that she understands that she is only to use the admin account when she wants to install software. The rest of the time she is to use the power user account. That will foil a huge percentage of adware and spyware, if not all of it.
posted by glyphlet at 10:12 AM on February 1, 2005

If you're looking to protect or lock it down, this old thread has a lot of good advice.

As for what to do? I would reinstall. I dealt with a new(ish) Dell a while ago and it had spyware preinstalled. Fun!
posted by easyasy3k at 10:56 AM on February 1, 2005

I never had any problems with the factory OS install on our Dells at work. They all needed the latest dozen or so security patches installed through.

But you will want to add:

* Antivirus
* Firefox
* archive/compression (I currently recommend 7-zip, but Stuffit is looking good for Q2, 2005)

And you probably want something better than that Roxio CD/DVD burner crap. I recommend Nero, but I usually get it bundled with the drives I buy.
posted by krisjohn at 2:06 PM on February 1, 2005

I go in an turn off unneeded services, like MSMessenging, and use the Current Version/Run registry sections to turn off quicktime and other unneccessary programs that start at login or boot. This is not hard, but don't do it if you are not confident. I get rid of all the vendor icons and consolidate the start menu so that it's no more than 1 column. Make sure the WinXP Firewall is enabled, turn off filesharing for most users, and make sure she has a hardware router/firewall if she has broadband. Configure MS Autoupdate to run daily.

I install: MS AntiSpyware (but don't have it run at boot - it slows boot time), spybot, adaware, Ultra VNC with 10+ character password and not as a service, AVG free anti-virus, Firefox as the default browser, Quicktime, Flash, MSMediaplayer, BBC Real, OpenOffice and Adobe Reader. OpenOffice will require the Java Runtime Environment.

I create an adminitrative user called admin and give my standard password - golden1234rod. The Administrator password is blue0987marble. (real passwords changed because I'm paranoid). User gets a poweruser account.

It's nice to create a cd with up to date drivers for all the hardware, but not necessary. I add a ziplock bag with any useful vendor cds and documentation, and a Knoppix cd for emergencies.

Setting up a filesharing app and Bittorrent would be a nice touch. Good luck.
posted by theora55 at 3:15 PM on February 1, 2005

"Most major manufacturers pre-load their machines with spyware"

Oh, come on, that is just not true,

In my experience, Dell's are much better on arrival that the machines from other mainstream manufacturers. But you may want to reinstall, as advised above.

That said, remember this machine isn't for you, it's for your sister, and she may find some of the software nerds dislike to be quite useful.
posted by ascullion at 4:52 PM on February 1, 2005

Run a Linux distro. Seriously, this was the only thing that kept my perpetually-on-the-brink-of-disaster Dell from working properly.
posted by will at 6:31 PM on February 1, 2005

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